BBC Micro:bit: digital teaching and learning in the classroom

Over the last few months, a free BBC micro:bit device has landed in the lap of every year seven pupil in the UK.

The BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized codeable computer with motion detection, a built-in compass, LED display, and Bluetooth technology. Micro:bit has the potential to help change the face of coding in the classroom, especially in response to the computing curriculum, newly introduced in September 2014.

‘Micro:bit is unique in its simplicity.  All you need to do is go to a website and plug in a USB.  It’s successful in offering a low barrier for entry with an outstanding support website. You don’t have to geek out. It’s as simple as dragging blocks.’ – Secondary teacher

Unthinkable led the market research for BBC Learning to better understand any competitive impact of the initiative, as well as to help bring together partners to support it. As part of this research we spoke to a number of teachers about their experiences of digital teaching and learning in the classroom, which in many cases seems to take place simultaneously, with the teachers learning about new technology alongside their pupils, often due to limitations in confidence, time and accessible training. We learned a lot from talking to practitioners, and we wanted to share a couple of reflections on this here. In many ways, it complements the thinking that Fred Deakin shared with us last week on how to create great blended learning experiences.

Technology is challenging

‘The massive inconsistency in confidence and skills is such an issue for pupils and teachers in getting to grips with the computing curriculum. It took me 2-3 years of ICT teaching to truly get how simple things need to be to actually begin.’ – Secondary ICT teacher

Differentiation has always been a challenge in the classroom, but with technology advancing at a rate of knots and becoming integral to cross-curricular teaching, the challenge has increasingly also become about bridging the gap in terms of teachers’ technical knowledge and capabilities and that of their pupils.  It’s clear from conversations, with primary teachers especially, that the ask of them to integrate technology into their lesson planning is, for the vast majority, simply an overwhelming prospect and one that requires sustained training and support to overcome.

‘Time to learn and grow confidence, plus expense of hardware in combination with unreliability of wifi connections in schools makes approaches hard.  Most stick to on screen applications.’ – CAS Master teacher working in secondary and primary schools

Most primary teachers admitted their tendency to stick to simplistic on screen programming applications like Scratch due to multiple factors, including affordability, lack of time and resource to support learning and or to practically set up and implement the use of hardware within contact time, but felt that it would be great, with more support, to get kids to start thinking about ‘the physical mechanics and real life applications’ with tethered devices like BBC micro:bit.

‘We have had some CPD training related to the new computing curriculum, but I know that a lot of teachers are struggling and feel de-skilled – it’s certainly an area where we are still finding our feet, even with a dedicated ICT coordinator to support delivery cross-subject.’ – Primary teacher, Year 5

‘New technology, hardware, has a tendency to end up sitting unused in Primary classrooms. With any new technology it’s key for teachers to understand its purpose in the context of their lessons and its potential for broader use in order to begin using it.’ – Primary NQT teacher

‘Professional development budgets have been reduced, however so have the opportunities for CPD – the infrastructure has gone. Schools can find time & money if the development need is relevant and coding is – but teachers need practical, hands-on time to understand the potential of coding and how to apply it.’ – Deputy Head/ Primary teacher

But technology also offers tools for support

On the upside there appears to be a growing external support network, including CAS Master Teachers, Digital Leaders, ICT Learning advisors and a model where some specialist secondary teachers are stepping in to help bridge the gap and work with their primary feeder schools network to offer teacher development sessions, especially in computing.

And teachers are also practising a form of collective self-help, sharing practice advice and resources with each other online – here’s just a few blogs referred to during our conversations:

Interactive Classroom
Matt Britland
Miles Berry
Simon Haughton
Teach with ICT

The teacher as explorer

Blended learning or the flipped classroom, as it’s sometimes referred to, also comes into play here. Increasingly, in secondary especially, instead of the teacher giving a demonstration or talk to the pupils in lesson time, that input is offered online, via video or podcast, for pupils to access at home – allowing them to learn more at their own pace. This also has the advantage of freeing up time in the classroom for more interactive experiences, collaborative projects, problem solving with their peers, class discussions etc.

One Secondary computing lead we spoke to felt strongly that virtual lessons were the future.  He has experienced a lot of success with video tutorials for pupils to extend their learning at home, especially in terms of scalability.  However again it takes time, a lot of upfront planning and time to pilot and problem solve… ‘It’s important to put yourself in their shoes to first understand the steps involved.’ Many of the teachers we talked to emphasised the fact that teachers are learning alongside their pupils. We think that teachers embracing the role of fellow-learner with confidence is something that can be empowering for teachers and pupils alike.

‘Virtual lessons are a great idea to capture everyone’s imagination, and especially for those less confident teachers – it allows opportunity for learning alongside pupils.’ {NQT primary teacher}

‘Virtual lessons could work – hands on play time alongside children, but we need to think carefully about point at which point they are being introduced and the progression routes.’ {Education Technology Advisor}

‘We’re aiming for a new way of teaching which is about developing depth over and above just instruction, especially with coding – so pupils are actually at a good enough level to write their own programmes and adapt that of others to make it their own. Whatever they use has to have to have the scope to be extended to meet individual capabilities.’ {Secondary teacher}

The pupil as the teacher

There was also a fair amount of conversation about the increase of peer to peer learning, especially where technology is concerned, pairing more confident pupils with their less experienced peers, or indeed younger pupils – one teacher talked about her aim to bridge the daunting primary/secondary divide by buddying year 7 pupils with year 6 pupils to showcase their work and support their learning through to secondary school.

We also spoke to an Education Technology Advisor from Somerset County Council who had been working with schools to appoint a number of pupils as ‘Digital Leaders’ to work alongside their teachers, as well as to help support learning among their peers, which was proving incredibly successful as an approach.

Learning tools

Overall it seems Micro:bit has been very well received, the BBC site is buzzing with project ideas and support resources for teachers and parents – there’s even a BBC micro:bit mission to Mars presented as a live lesson.

The BBC micro:bit’s technical specifications are open-source, which means they can be used by other organisations and tech companies without restriction to build extensions, advancements and carry the legacy of the BBC’s work forwards.  We’re delighted to see the micro:bit now on sale and available to all and look forward to watching how the space develops – not just the micro:bit but also the wide range of learning tools and toys alongside which it takes its very special place. Below are just a few favourites we found along the way…

Early years 3+

Primo Cubetto: A playful programming language you can touch. Montessori approved, and LOGO Turtle inspired. For early years to learn programming away from a screen.

Code-A-Pillar: The toy company, Fisher Price, has created a new coding toy aimed at the class of 2035 that starts the journey into getting them to understand the foundational skills of coding, like thinking skills, problem solving, and sequencing.

5+ years

Quirkbot & Strawbees: Quirkbot is a little character you can program and construct into different shapes and forms. Connect Strawbees, motors, LEDs and sensors to make your own creatures! It’s a fun and easy way into the inspiring world of physical programming, electronics and mechanics for kids, grown-ups and educators.

Dash & Dot: Dash & Dot are real robots, charged and ready to play out of the box. Responding to voice, navigating objects, dancing, and singing. Both connect well to free apps like Blockly and Wonder with simple drag & drop language.

MakeyMakey: An easy-to-use invention kit aimed at making STEM education fun. First set-up takes seconds and possibilities are endless including a banana piano! Initially created by two students at MIT Media Lab under the advisorship of Mitch Resnick and is an academic and artistic project.

Kano: Kano is a computer anyone can make. The Kano mission is to give young people – and the young at heart – a simple, fun way to make and play with technology, and take control of the world around them.

7+ years

Mover Kit: A new wearable device from Tech Will Save Us (huge supporters of the BBC micro:bit). The Mover Kit is an intuitive way for kids ages 8 and over to learn the fundamentals of electronics, programming and creative problem solving.

Lego WeDo 2.0: Pitched at KS2 to encourage pupils to get involved in science exploration through computing, by asking questions, analysing data and communicating their findings. Plugs really well into the Scratch programming environment.

MakerBloks: MakerBloks are electronic building blocks that combine real world play with a digital story. Each block contains a magnet so they can easily find the others, connect, and then become a fully functioning circuit. Play around with different sequences, and get to know each of their functions and what they can do then build your own stories with the Maker City app.

Sphero SPRK+: Designed to inspire curiosity, creativity, and invention through connected play and coding, SPRK+ is far more than just a robot. Powered by the Lightning Lab app, you can easily learn programming, complete hands-on activities, and share your creations with the community.

Crumble: The Crumble is an easy-to-use programmable controller designed to encourage coding and tinkering. It can drive 2 motors forwards and backwards at variable speeds. It allows connections to switches, LDRs, low power LEDs and so on. Programs are built by snapping blocks together on screen. The Crumble can be extended with digitally controlled full-colour LED, called Sparkles.

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